Ross Douthat, writing for The New York Times seems to think so. As a matter of fact he does us one better, arguing that Boehner is an “American hero.” I don’t know about that, but as Douthat points out, Boehner has had a rough ride as speaker, almost none of which was from his own doing. He has had to balance his insanely ideological caucus with the need for compromise with Barack Obama. In the fiscal cliff negotiations, he was overshadowed by Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell’s side deal.
Yet at the same time, Boehner has done his country a more important service over the last two years than almost any other politician in Washington.
That service hasn’t been the achievement of a grand bargain with the White House, which he has at times assiduously sought. Nor has it been the sweeping triumph over liberalism that certain right-wing activists expect him to somehow gain. Rather, it’s been a kind of disaster management — a sequence of bomb-defusal operations that have prevented our dysfunctional government from tipping into outright crisis.
Three realities have made these constant defusing operations necessary. First, there’s the grim economic and budgetary situation — a mix of slow growth and huge peacetime deficits that constrains policy makers in unprecedented ways. (It’s far, far easier to be a successful legislator when you’re negotiating over an expanding pie.) Second, there’s the combination of gridlocked government and ideological polarization, which simultaneously requires compromise while reducing the common ground available to would-be deal makers.
Such obstacles might be enough to frustrate even the legislative giants of the past. Pundits talk blithely about the good old days of bipartisanship, but there’s no real precedent in modern American history for a bipartisan bargain in which two bitterly divided sides both accept so many painful sacrifices.
Boehner has arguably more trouble with his own caucus than anywhere else. As Michael Steele pointed out, he and President Obama could have come up with a deal in 24 hours if the Tea Party was not involved.
The Republicans’ current position makes things harder still, because Boehner’s party has much more power in Washington than it has support in the nation as a whole. Republicans are a minority party nationally, but thanks to redistricting they control the House despite Democrats’ 2012 successes. This mismatch leaves the base spoiling for fights that can’t actually be won: House Republicans have just enough real power to raise conservative expectations but not nearly enough to bend a liberal president and a Democratic Senate to their will.
Boehner’s job, then, requires constantly pushing hard enough to persuade his caucus that he’s maximizing Republican leverage, while simultaneously looking for ways to make small, can-kicking deals at the last possible moment. Which he’s always found, by hook or by crook: there was no government shutdown in the spring of 2011, no debt default that summer, and the fiscal cliff was averted (at least temporarily) last week.
The fact that all these crises have been resolved at the 11th hour, amid persistent brinkmanship and repeated near-death moments for his speakership, isn’t a sign that he’s a failure. Instead, given the correlation of forces he’s dealing with, this is what success looks like. (For a glimpse of the alternative, just imagine rerunning the last two years with Newt Gingrich in the speaker’s chair.)